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Stressed out? You are not helpless! A few words about an antidote to stress.

What comes to your mind first when you think of stress? Is it a positive association evoking all those situations in which you were faced with a challenge, full of energy and ready to act expecting success?

Does it involve excitement, positive sensations in the body and an unwavering hope for positive results of your actions? Or are these associations related to the feeling of jumbled thoughts and words spoken, increased awareness of unwanted reactions of your body, such as increased heartbeat, sweating and blushing or accelerated breathing? Perhaps they are even associated with overload, overexertion and fear of failing at something?

When asked about it, most of the people in my stress management workshops mention negative connotations. The most frequently cited are unpleasant sensations coming from the body, cognitive difficulties (e.g. concentration or memory problems) or a general feeling of overload. When asked about stressful associations, only a handful of people indicated an increase in motivation to act or positive excitement.

Although stress is a reaction that, from the perspective of biology, is designed to ensure our survival under conditions that require intense efforts, it is rather difficult for us to immediately recall its positive attributes from our memory or experience. In fact, the type of stress most often associated with our everyday experience is called distress. It demotivates us, causes things to get out of hand, so that we may not achieve the results we want. On the contrary, positive, mobilising stress - eustress - is our ally which makes us take up challenges and complete them, invest our energy in them and experience the positive effects.

Interestingly, we live in a culture where being stressed out is a kind of norm and a person who has many challenges in life and is constantly busy is worthy of praise and emulation. At the same time, however, we can see that constant tension and feverish readiness with few moments of calm and opportunities for tranquillity is not how we imagined our lives to be. As society, we are becoming more and more aware of the need to master the ever-present fever of action and find a balance between work and rest. Hence, the popularity of various courses or programmes aimed at mastering stress at the level of body and mind and exercises focusing on restoring harmony to the whole organism is on the rise.

An essential feature of the stress response is that it is activated at an important moment from the point of view of the person concerned. On the one hand, everyone’s body will react according to the same stress pattern under the conditions of an objective, physical threat (e.g. in contact with a dangerous animal). On the other hand, in ordinary daily life, each of us will be stressed out by slightly different situations; ones that are important from the point of view of our values, needs and desires. A student who is aiming for an academic scholarship may care more about passing an exam than someone for whom just obtaining credits is what matters. As a result of a different value attached to the same situation by two different people, the stress they feel before an event such as an exam can be radically different.

A woman sitting by the water.

As stress is an intrinsic part of our lives and it is still difficult to imagine the world without situations that are stressful for us, it is worth acquiring the tools to cope skilfully with stressful situations. There is a wide variety of techniques and methods for dealing with stress. In truth, it is not at all easy to find the ones suitable for us in the multitude of different options. The only method is exploration. Two qualities will certainly be very useful on the way to tame stress: curiosity and a deep need to change one’s current situation. These elements are likely to keep you motivated over time to regularly practise new reactions in the face of stress - which is the essence of learning about various types of anti-stress techniques.

Where to start the search for specific methods? It is certainly worthwhile to carry out a self-analysis and reflect on the following questions: what stresses me (in other words: what is important for me)?

How does this stress manifest itself (is it, for example, my body’s reaction that bothers me the most, or are intrusive, nagging thoughts the biggest problem?) and have I so far used, sometimes less consciously, any methods aimed at coping with the stress situation in question, and what were they (e.g. taking up sports, seeking social support)?

The answers to these questions can already give me some clues and hints as to which solutions I should follow, e.g. whether I need to first reflect on my day, schedule of activities and daily undertakings in order to bring more order into my daily plan (then, e.g., I will look for methods focusing on time management), or whether calming my agitated body will be the most important skill to start with (and then I can look into breathing or relaxation methods).

Next, I might consider whether I care about methods specifically structured to deal with stress (for example MBSR - Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction or dealing with stress through mindfulness) or whether I am more interested in improving my functioning in general through different kinds of developmental paths which, if followed, might toughen me up or change my experience of stress as a ‘side effect’ of these practices? The latter option includes psychotherapy, which creates a safe environment for me to confront my various difficulties, which may also result in better functioning in the face of everyday stressors. Within the latter approach, it is also worth exploring the concept of resilience, as well as logotherapy or ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy). These approaches emphasise the human being as a person capable of overcoming difficulties and being a creator (and not just a receiver) of reality, despite the objective obstacles that accompany us every day.

Systemising the existing possibilities in the field of influencing one’s stress response can help us to choose the area that is the most relevant for us at any given time. Peter Beer in his book ‘Radikal STRESSFREI: 6 Schritte zu mehr Widerstandskraft und Entspannung’ divides anti-stress methods into three categories:

  • external load modification - methods in this area aim to transform our environment and the demands that we encounter to reduce their stressful nature
  • mental techniques - involve observing one’s thoughts, becoming aware of their consequences and transforming them into more adaptive, rational thoughts
  • increasing resilience to stress - helps to strengthen ourselves in the face of stress which will be present in our lives anyway (Beer, P., 2019)

As there are many options of dealing with stress, it is good to approach the subject methodically so that we are not further overwhelmed by the plethora of alternatives and the paradox of choice. It is also a good idea to be patient and aware that every new thing we learn requires a certain amount of practice and time before it can be applied successfully as an efficient tool.

Reference literature

Beer, P. (2019). Kuracja antystresowa. Proste ćwiczenia i techniki, które pomogą skutecznie wyeliminować stres. [Radikal STRESSFREI: 6 Schritte zu mehr Widerstandskraft und Entspannung]

About the author

Anna Kwaśniewska – psychologist who works as an educational advisor at the Jagiellonian University Accessibility Centre. She runs workshops for JU students on how to deal with stress as part of the project ‘Responsible support and sustainable development’.